The Five Rules for Affecting Real Culture Change

| January 9, 2021

By Colin Shaw Influencer

Renowned Global Influencer | Customer Experience & Growth | Selected by FT

as a Leading Consultancy | Training & Coach


Welcome to Why Customers Buy, my weekly LinkedIn Newsletter series that

explores how customers make decisions. It reveals ways to unlock what

customers really want with new concepts and practical tips that drive value.


You can have a great philosophy, deliberate strategy, and cunning tactics to

inspire customer-driven growth, but if you don’t change your culture, they

won’t work. Changing the culture within your organization is vital if you want to

deliver a Customer Experience that fosters customer loyalty and retention.


Culture change is not easy. I was running a workshop with a utility client many

years ago about the concept of Customer Experience. There were 20 people in

the room, and we were kicking around ideas of what changes could deliver an

improved experience. One young lady, much younger than her surrounding coworkers, had an idea, several actually. However, with every one of her

suggestions, one of the others would say, “We already did that; it didn’t work,”

implying that it wouldn’t work now, either. This cycle happened many times

before she gave up. It was clear that changing the culture at this utility was

going to be challenging.


It still happens today, too. I was talking to a chief marketing officer (CMO) of a

multinational company the other day who wants to change the organization

(and believe me, I know this organization; he’s right). I started to talk about

how people within his organization needed to understand customer emotions

and focus on customer-centricity. The CMO stopped me because he knew right

away that it wouldn’t work for their company. I challenged him on this,

explaining that if he took that view, the organization would never change. We

will see what he decides.


However, I don’t think his situation is unique. We know this process is a

challenge. To help prepare you mentally for it, we comprised these five rules

for affecting real culture change.


  1. Create or define a burning platform.
  2. Recognize this is a long-term go8l.
  3. Be clear on your vision for the future.
  4. Remember that “you don’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
  5. Lead from the top.


Let’s take a closer look at each of them.


Rule #1: Create or Define a Burning Platform.


Essentially, this first rule is for you to make it clear why the organization should

change. If everybody thinks business-as-usual is working, no one will bother to

make any changes; itʼs too inconvenient and uncomfortable. It’s the classic

idea that to effect change, one must realize that the pain of change is less

than the pain of staying where you are. If you don’t believe me, consider the

fate of these previously successful brands: Circuit City, Sears, Blockbuster,

Kodak, and probably soon, J.C. Penney. Moreover, with the pandemic and the

recession and everything else that will follow looming, we could see some more

big brands take a fall. However, if these former brands had a more customercentric

culture, they would probably be here today bec8use they realized that

the market is moving on and appropriately adjusted.


To illustrate what I mean, consider how diets work (or don’t work, as the case

may be). Weight loss is a common goal for many people, but they often fail to

do so over and over again. However, some people succeed. The difference

between those that fail and those who lose weight is that people who lose

weight have the go8al of losing weight for a specific event, e.g., a wedding or

class reunion. The special event is the burning platform, which creates a sense

of urgency.


I have talked about Loss Aversion before, and one of its implications is that

when you are in a gain frame, which is what most companies are in most of the

time, you tend to be risk-averse, meaning you don’t want to change. However,

when you get into a loss frame (aka, there is a platform on fire and it threatens

to burn the whole enterprise down), your risk preferences flip, and you become

more risk-seeking. In other words, you are more willing to take a chance

because you can see that the status quo threatens to destroy your success.


Rule #2: Recognize that this is a long-term goal.


I’ve been in many organizations where people want to make a culture change

in the next six months. In my experience, it takes a lot longer than that. You

may be able to start it in six months, and even make progress, but you will still

have a way to go. Cultural changes usually range from three to five years.

If you think you will achieve culture change in six months, my advice would be

don’t even try it. You’re not going to see it through to completion in six months.


Rule #3: Be clear about your vision of the future.


Your articulation of the vision, the philosophy, is vital. However, it is equally

crucial th8t you know what you want it to do. Break it down into all the new

things you want to do and all of the old stuff you want to stop. Also, include

how you want to measure it.


In my early career in corporate life, the philosophy flavour of the month at that

particular time was Total Quality Management. I was with a big corporate

telecom at the time, and we went on a training course for Total Quality

Management. One of the remarkable things that came out of the training was

the idea that you should have a plan and objective for every meeting. It would

be best if you also articulated those things beforehand, estimate the time

needed for the meeting, and then stick to it. What I like about these concepts

is that these are solid, definable things you can do. Moreover, if you don’t do it,

it is obvious you aren’t doing it. This level of clarity for your vision will help you

achieve the same.


The culture of your organization reflects on the experience your customers

have. For example, we were working with an airline that wanted to improve

their experience. We discovered in getting to know their culture that internally,

they referred to passengers as “self-loading freight.” In essence, this alone

tells you everything you need to know about this airline. As we worked with the

airline to develop a Customer Experience Statement, which defines the

experience they wanted to deliver, the airline wanted to improve punctuality.

However, we explained that being late was a company culture for them; they

had been late to every meeting we ever had with them. While starting meetings

on time has nothing to do with how quickly planes are loaded and unloaded,

being late to meetings can send a powerful cultural signal within an

organization that being late is acceptable.


The ability to articulate what you want people to do and what you don’t want

people to do is essential here. You want to make these actions definite and

measurable, too, so it’s obvious when somebody is doing it—or not doing it.

Another cultural signal I always like to check is where Customer Experience

falls on the meeting agenda. If it is at the end, then that tells me a lot. What

you put at the end of the list is rarely the number one priority. If you always do

customer metrics last, it sends a subtle message to everyone in attendance

that it is not that essential to the organization or not as critical as all the other

items on the list.


Rule #4: Remember that “you don’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”


The reality of culture changes is that they are tough, and some people will not

want to go on the journey. You will encounter resistance to your plan, and it

won’t always be forthright. Ultimately, you might have to sack individuals that

aren’t on board with your planned cultural change.


The last corporate organization I worked at was implementing a change

program involving six sectors. One sector was not on board. The guy running

even placed a bet that the change program wouldn’t work. It should come as

no surprise that when it was time to go live, their sector wasn’t ready because

that senior person convinced everybody that it wouldn’t work.


If you consider the teachings from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, you have to

choose your battles. You can’t win every battle, so you need to select the

crucial ones. From a business perspective, that can mean breaking a few eggs

to make your Customer Experience omelet. In other words, you might have to

fire someone who isn’t on board, particularly if that person is a high-profile,

senior person. If you remove them, that sends a signal that you’re serious

about your program for change. I wouldn’t fire people just as a matter of

course, but if they’re undermining what you’re doing, you do have to get rid of

them. Which leads me to…


Rule #5: Lead from the top.


Good leadership provides an excellent employee experience and the employee

experience you provide is essential. In fact, my book, Happy Employees Make

Happy Customers explains in great detail how this works. Regarding culture,

one of the points I make in the book is that people often stay in jobs because

of great managers, and leave because of poor ones.


Your words and actions have to be the same. If you want to make that cultural

change, you have to live it and demonstrate to people that you live it, even

when (and particularly when) it’s causing you some pain. Principles are great,

but they mean nothing unless you sacrifice something for them. Make sure that

you’re doing what you’re asking your teams to do.


A vital part of that is to look at your schedule. If you say the organization

needs to be more customer-centric and spend more time with customers, look

at your schedule and see where you’re doing that. Otherwise, your words ring

hollow to those who follow you. It goes back to the importance of these subtle

signals. If you say one thing and do another, it undermines that culture change.

The first call center I managed many years ago had 550 people in Bristol,

England. The call center was in one building, but their manager before me h8d

his office in another building entirely. The effect was that the team never saw

their manager in person at all. There were offices at the call center building; he

just wasn’t in them.


When I took over, I wanted to make the point about being accessible. I would

sit out on the floor with everybody else. From a cultural perspective, I was

saying I was equal to everybody else. Moreover, I stayed as long as the call

center was open. I wanted to make myself available to the team and these

tactics were my way of sending that signal to people. In a way, the most

essential signal we can send is how we use our own time.


These five rules can help you in your efforts to effect change at your

organization. By creating urgency with a burning platform, you prioritize the

need for change. Then, working with the long-term in mind, you can present a

clear vision for the culture you envision for your organization and work out

what you should (and shouldn’t) do in that new environment. Recognize there

could be some battles, and maybe some people you need to move on because

they’re not going to be part of the new culture. Perhaps most importantly, you

must match your words and actions because the little things matter and will

resound around the organization.


Colin Shaw Influencer

Renowned Global Influencer | Customer Experience & Growth | Selected by FT

as a Leading Consultancy | Training & Coach

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